My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Dean Dillon

Album Review: Vern Gosdin – ‘There Is A Season’

Following the collapse of AMI Records in late 1982, Vern found himself recording for Compleat, another minor label. His first album for Compleat was If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong, released in April 1983. This album contained a re-recording of Vern’s last hit for AMI, “Today My World Slipped Away”, plus the title track, Vern’s first hit for Compleat. The next album was There Is A Season released in April 1984. This is an odd album, with wide and varied production and a somewhat rushed feel to it.

The quasi-title track “Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There Is A Season)” was a song from the folk era. Created by Pete Seeger, the song is taken entirely from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible (with the notable exception of the last line) and set to music by Seeger around 1959. The song has been recorded many times, probably by every Hootenanny-era folk act and by many rock acts as well, most notably the Byrds who took it to #1 on the pop chart in 1965. Gosdin was friends with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, and McGuinn appears on Vern’s recording of the song. This song was not released as a single, although it received some airplay on country radio. I think it unlikely that it would have made a successful single as it was somewhere between the Byrd’s version and what I think a real country recording of the song would sound like. As much as I love the music of Vern Gosdin, this is among my least favorite recordings of the song (my favorite version was by the Australian group the Seekers). That said, it is not a bad recording.

“Love Me Right To The End” is another of those medium slow ballads that Vern sings so well. I don’t think the song itself is anything special but Vern’s vocal, along with the sympathetic backing and fine fiddle playing by Rob Hajacos makes this a fine track.

“How Can I Believe In You (When You’re Leaving Me)” is another medium slow ballad. Here the Nashville String Machine is a little more in evidence than on the prior track, but Vern’s vocals dominate, which is as it should be.

Jim Rushing was a tunesmith whose songs were recorded by a lot of artists during the 1980s. “Slow Healing Heart” is given an effective treatment by Vern. This song features straight-forward county production, with minimal Nashville Sound trappings.

“I Can Tell By The Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” would become Vern’s first #1 record in the spring of 1984. The version on this album is NOT the version released as the single. It’s taken at a slightly slower tempo than the hit single, and Vern’s vocal lacks the pizzazz of the single (I wonder if this was recorded at the end of a long session, because “The Voice” sounds tired on this recording). This track is pleasant enough, but if released as a single, I doubt it would have been a top ten record. Fortunately someone saw the potential in the song and had Vern give it another shot.

“What Would Your Memories Do” is a Hank Cochran-Dean Dillon collaboration which fits exactly into Vern’s preferred medium slow groove. This song would reach the top ten during the summer of 1984.

“Slow Burning Memory” is one of my favorite Vern Gosdin songs; however, the version on this album is NOT the version that reached the top ten in early 1985, but a slightly slower and more straight-forward country recording. Vern’s vocal on the single has a bit brighter vocal; moreover, the use of strings on the single greatly enhanced the dramatic effect of the lyrics. Vern and Max D. Barnes penned this number.

“Dead From The Heart On Down” compares death with a man who has lost love. Another Vern Gosdin-Max D Barnes collaboration, the song fits well within the context of this album. Vern and Max also penned “Stone Cold Heart” another medium-slow ballad.

“I’ve Got My Heart Full of You” is little more up-tempo than most of this album, and “You Never Cross My Mind” has a more prominent string arrangement to it than some of the tracks. I don’t think either of these tracks is anything special, but they are well sung and make for enjoyable listening.

I regard this as one of Vern’s weaker albums but I would rate it in the B to B+ range. If the album had contained single versions of “I Can Tell By The Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” and “Slow Burning Memory”, I would have nudged up to an A-. Of course when you’re rating an artist and saying one of his weaker albums is worth a B+ you are saying a lot about the artist.

Album Review: Kellie Pickler – ’100 Proof’

For some years, former American idol contestant Kellie Pickler has been saying encouraging things about her interpretation of country music, but not backing them up with her music, with her first two albums being somewhat over-produced pop-country efforts with average material and processed vocals. At last she has come through with something really worth hearing. She has obviously worked on her singing as well, and makes the most of a voice which is nice enough but not outstanding. Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten support her vocals infinitely better than her previous producers. There is a lot of variety in tempos and styles here, ranging from very traditional to more contemporary but recognisably country.

The voice and artistry of one of my favourite current songwriters, Leslie Satcher, underpin the vision of this record. She wrote or co-wrote five of the eleven tracks, including the first two singles, and anyone familiar with her own excellent records will recognise the style here. Underperforming lead single ‘Tough’, written especially for Kellie, about a rough-edged girl, has an energetic beat and I would have expected it to do better than a #30 peak, which is an ominous sign for the commercial prospects of this project, but despite its pedigree it is one of the less stellar songs. The title track and current single ‘100 Proof’ is a tender love ballad with a pretty tune, written by Satcher with James T Slater. The protagonist compares her own experience of true happiness with those she sees in a bad relationship.

The best of Satcher’s compositions here is ‘Where’s Tammy Wynette’ which opens the set. It is an excellent, pure country song, written by Satcher with Jimmy Ritchey and Don Poythress, from the point of view of the lonely wife of a man “torn between neon lights and home”, and searching for wisdom in Tammy’s music. On this track in particular Kellie’s vocal inflections are highly reminiscent of writer Leslie Satcher’s stylings. Leslie co-wrote a couple of the songs with Kellie. The rhythmic banjo-led ‘Unlock That Honky Tonk’ is pretty good, and sung with aggressive attack once more reminiscent of Satcher, with ex-SteelDriver Chris Stapleton’s backing vocals evident. However, the ballad ‘Turn On The Radio And Dance’, while not unpleasant, is forgettable filler.

Kellie also had the opportunity to co-write with Dean Dillon (another of my favourite writers) and Dale Dodson; this threeway partnership produced a bruised reflection on the end of a love affair , where she says she’ll be alright ‘Long As I Never See You Again’. This is a fine, downbeat song which grows on repeat listening. They also worked together on the therapeutic In ‘The Letter (To Daddy)’, an incredibly personal open letter to Kellie’s father, whose addiction-fueled crimes led him to spend most of his daughter’s childhood in prison, but, according to this song, has found sobriety. This is rather touching and definitely a highlight.

She has addressed her difficult family background before, with her early single ‘I Wonder’, addressed to the mother who, unable to cope, abandoned her to the care of her grandparents, and those emotions are revisited here. ‘Mother’s Day’, written by Kellie with her husband, Kyle Jacobs, is gentle and rueful as she broods on the absence of her mother from her childhood, and speculates about becoming a mother herself. To be perfectly honest, although this is a more mature reflection, delivered with a delicate vulnerability which shows the pain of that early abandonment has still not left Kellie, the song is not as emotionally immediate as the emotionally rawer ‘I Wonder’ on her debut album.

She also contemplates babies in the not-too-distant future in ‘Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song)’, a pleasant and more contemporary sounding song about domestic happiness which she wrote with Brent Cobb and Barry Dean, and which one assumes is addressed to Jacobs. It’s quite a slight song, but is soothing and attractively melodic.

My favourite song by far is the fantastic and very traditional country ‘Stop Cheatin’ On Me’, written by Chris Stapleton, his wife Morgane Hayes, and Liz Rose. Paul Franklin’s steel slides under Kellie’s deceptively sweet vocal, as the lyric pays off with an ultimatum:

Stop cheatin’ on me – or I’ll start cheatin’ on you

This would have been a smash hit in the 70s. Today’s country radio wouldn’t touch it, which is a sad indictment.

I also enjoyed the upbeat ‘Little House On The Highway’, written by Rodney Clawson and Natalie Hemby, about the traveling life.

Overall, this was a surprisingly enjoyable release from an artist for whom my expectations were limited. I hope it does well for her.

Grade: A-

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

2011 was actually a slightly better year for country music than the past several years, though you’d never know it from listening to country radio. A lot of my old favorites released new albums this year, so it was a little easier than usual for me to find new music to listen to. Here are my favorite releases of 2011:

10. Working in Tennessee – Merle Haggard
While the material was not quite up to the standards of last year’s I Am What I Am, Haggard shows that he’s not ready to hang up his guitar just yet. Though he’s well past his vocal peak, his music is still worth listening to. An eclectic set that runs from Dixieland Jazz to more contemporary fare, with some social commentary and Hag’s views on the current state of country music, this set deserved more attention than it received. It is currently available for download for $4.99 at Amazon.

9. Remember Me, Volume 1 — Willie Nelson
This set picks up where last year’s Country Music left off, and even includes a re-recording of a track (a cover of Porter Wagoner’s “Satisfied Mind”) that appeared on that 2010 release. The album consists entirely of cover material, some of which Willie had recorded in the past, and none of which are his original compositions. It is to traditional country music what his Stardust collection was to pre-rock-and-roll pop. As the title suggests, a second volume is planned for sometime in 2012.

8. Neon – Chris Young
Chris Young is easily the best of the new male singers to emerge in the past few years, but his material has tended to be somewhat inconsistent. Neon is a huge step in the right direction.

7. Better Day – Dolly Parton
I was little skeptical when I first heard about this release, thinking that the last thing country music needs is another set of accentuate-the-positive songs, but Dolly pulls off this project quite well. She wrote all 12 tracks (one is a co-write with Mac Davis), and the lead single “Together You and I” is a remake of one of her old duets with Porter Wagoner. Overall, it’s a much stronger and more consistent set than her previous studio release, 2008′s Backwoods Barbie.

6. Where Country Grows – Ashton Shepherd
I really wanted to love Ashton’s debut album, 2008′s Sounds So Good, but found the material lacking in a lot of cases. After three long years, she finally released her sophomore disc, which is much more to my liking than the first. She’s tweaked her sound just enough to appeal to current commercial tastes, but sadly, the marketplace doesn’t seem to be paying much attention. If you haven’t heard this album yet, “Look It Up”. It’s currently available for download for $4.99 from Amazon.

5. Guitar Slinger — Vince Gill
The follow-up to These Days was long overdue but well worth the wait. As usual, Gill covers a wide range of musical territory from blues and contemporary Christian to adult contemporary and more mainstream county fare. But no matter what the label, it’s excellent music from start to finish.

4. Here For A Good Time — George Strait
I can’t remember a time when George Strait wasn’t at the top of the country charts. He’s been a constant presence for 30 years, and as such he is sometimes taken for granted. He hasn’t gotten a lot of critical acclaim in recent years, and admittedly, his last couple of albums didn’t compare with most of his earlier work. Here For A Good Time is his strongest effort since 2005′s Somewhere Down In Texas, and despite the title, is not a collection of party tunes. There is upbeat fare to be sure, but there are also darker and more serious offerings, such as “Drinkin’ Man”, “A Showman’s Life”, and “Poison”. For most of his career, Strait was well known for not writing the overwhelming majority of the songs he recorded, but he and his son Bubba wrote seven of the eleven tracks here, usually collaborating with Dean Dillon and Bobby Boyd.

3. Your Money and My Good Looks — Rhonda Vincent & Gene Watson
Two of country music’s best and most underrated artists teamed up for this project, which is a pure delight to listen to from beginning to end. It mixes a little bit of the old with a little bit of the new, but it is 100% pure country from beginning to end. No fancy studio trickery will be found here, just some excellent, well sung songs. My favorite tracks are the covers of Vern Gosdin’s “Till The End” and “This Wanting You”, which appeared on George Jones’ 1999 album Cold Hard Truth.

2. Hell on Heels — Pistol Annies
This collection from Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angeleena Presley has got to be the year’s most pleasant surprise. I really wasn’t expecting much but this ended up being one of my most-played albums of the year. Despite Lambert’s current popularity — or perhaps because of it — the album isn’t getting a lot of attention from radio. Hopefully radio’s tepid response and the demands of the group members’ solo careers won’t prevent another Pistol Annies collection from being released before too long.

1. Long Line of Heartaches — Connie Smith
I rarely get excited about upcoming album releases anymore, but this was a definite exception. It’s difficult not to get excited about a new Connie Smith album, since they are such infrequent events; Long Line of Heartaches was her first new album in 13 years, and prior to that there was a 20-year gap between albums. It was produced by Smith’s husband Marty Stuart, and like his Ghost Train (my #1 pick of 2010), it was recorded in the famous RCA Studio B, where so many of Connie’s classic hits from the 1960s and 1970s were laid on tape. Half of the album’s songs were written by Smith and Stuart, with the remainder coming from the pens of legends such as Harlan Howard, Dallas Frazier and Johnny Russell. It simply does not get any better than this. It is currently available for download for $4.99 at Amazon.

Album Review – Lee Ann Womack – ‘Call Me Crazy’

Following the success of There’s More Where That Came From, Womack released the single “Finding My Way Back Home” in August 2006. A return to the poppier sounds she favored on I Hope You Dance, the song failed to rekindle her radio career and an album of the same name was shelved.

Her next full-length album Call Me Crazy finally saw the light of day in the fall of 2008. Upon release critics hailed the album as one of the year’s best and praised Womack for continuing to explore her roots and show that women don’t have to rely on singing feel-good songs all the time.  Read more of this post

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘There’s More Where That Came From’

2005′s There’s More Where That Came From is a pivotal album in the discography of Lee Ann Womack that helped to erase memories of the disastrous Something Worth Leaving Behind and to re-establish much of the credibility that she had lost with that ill-advised flirtation with pop diva-dom. Three years after her last full-length studio release, Lee Ann was back in a big way, with a new producer and a new sound. Or, perhaps a more accurate way to put it would be a new old sound. There’s More Where That Came From pays homage to a bygone era, with a retro sound and artwork that made it resemble a Tammy Wynette album from the 1970s. The disc itself even has the same design that MCA had used on its vinyl releases in the 70s and 80s, with a rainbow coming out of the clouds.

The country music landscape had changed considerably since Lee Ann’s debut just eight year earlier. Whereas her first album arrived at a time when it appeared that the genre might be swinging back toward its roots, There’s More Where That Came From was released at a time when things had moved decidedly toward the pop end of the spectrum and when the youth movement was in full force, leaving artists over the age of 40 at a distinct disadvantage. It is therefore, a little surprising that Lee Ann was allowed to release what could only have been viewed at the time as a non-commercial album, but her career had nosedived so badly by that time, her label perhaps felt that there was nothing left to lose.
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Razor X’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

It seems like every year it gets more and more difficult to find new single releases that I actually like. There were a few — but only a few — gems this year. Here are some of my favorites:

10. Northern Girl — Terri Clark. Clark’s homage to her homeland, co-written with former Sugarland member Kristen Hall, is her first single that I’ve truly liked in quite some time. Sadly, it failed to gain any traction on either side of the border.

9. Drink Myself Single — Sunny Sweeney. Currently at #36 on the charts, the third offering from Sunny’s Concrete collection has already out-performed its predecessor and hopefully will become her second Top 10 hit. It reminds me of the type of song radio regularly played back in the 90s during the line-dancing craze.

8. Home — Dierks Bentley. Finally, a song about love of country that manages to avoid jingoism and combativeness. It was written in response to the shooting incident that critically injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six other people in January of this year.

7. Cumberland Rose — Sylvia. The former 80s star returned in January with her first single release in 24 years. Often unfairly dismissed as a minor talent, Sylvia delivers a lovely vocal performance on this folk ballad written by Craig Bickhardt and Jeff Pennig. I couldn’t find anyplace online to listen to it in its entirety, but it’s well worth the 99 cents to download it from iTunes or Amazon.

6. Tomorrow — Chris Young. The latest in a long tradition of country songs about clinging to one more night before finally ending a relationship that’s run out of steam. Chris Young is one of Nashville’s finest young talents and is destined for great things if he can keep finding material as good as this.

5. In God’s Time — Randy Houser. This introspective number provides a much better showcase for Houser’s vocal ability than his more popular Southern rock-tinged work. It’s the best thing he’s released so far.

4. Here For A Good Time — George Strait. After a couple of rocky years, George Strait finally got his mojo back with this fun number that he wrote with Dean Dillon and his son Bubba Strait.

3. Look It Up — Ashton Shepherd. This blistering confrontation of two-timing spouse deserved more airplay than it got. It may not have been a tremendous commercial success, but I’ll bet Loretta Lynn is proud.

2. Colder Weather — Zac Brown Band. Reminiscent of Dave Loggins’ classic “Please Come To Boston”, the Zac Brown Band continues to push the boundaries of country music without diluting it beyond recognition.

1. Cost of Livin’ — Ronnie Dunn. This tale of a down-on-his-luck veteran is a sad testament to the current economic difficulties in much of the world and a plight to which too many people can relate. Beautifully written and performed, it’s by far the best thing played on country radio this year. It failed to garner any Grammy nominations, but hopefully it will get some recognition by the CMA and ACM next time around.

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘I Hope You Dance’

Lee Ann Womack’s most commercially successful album features crystalline vocals, an ambitious selection of material ranging from the traditional sounds closest to her heart to Americana to adult contemporary influences which barely escape being bland.

The title track was a massive crossover hit, thanks to the combination of the song’s message, very AC sounding, sophisticated production, and the lovely and obviously heartfelt vocal which Lee Ann directed to her two young daughters. The counterpoint of the Sons of the Desert (singing a different set of lyrics) is unusually set against the sweetness of Lee Ann’s optimistic vocal. The song’s ubiquity has led to some backlash, but I think it still stands up for what it is: a genuinely inspiring wish for a child to live life to the full and not regret any missed opportunities. And its message is worth hearing:

Loving might be a mistake but it’s worth making

Lee Ann’s only #1 hit, ‘I Hope You Dance’ registered platinum, won a stack of awards for both Lee Ann and its writers Mark D Sanders and Tia Sillers, crossed over to hit the top of the AC chart, and even got some pop and international airplay. It may not be her best record, but it is undoubtedly her best-known, particularly among non-country listeners.

The next single was a contrast in style and mood, a gutsy version of Rodney Crowell’s onetime minor pop hit ‘Ashes By Now’, which peaked for Lee Ann at #14. It’s one of her less country recordings, but undoubtedly technically an impressive achievement with Lee Ann successfully navigating the song’s awkward jerky rhythms, jaded mood and shifting intensity.

It was back to the ballads with ‘Why They Call It Falling’, another excellent song, written by Don Schlitz and Roxie Dean. It contrasts the thrill of falling in love with the devastation of subsequent heartbreak, and Lee Ann’s vocal is masterly, although the strings are a bit overwhelming in places. It peformed similarly to its immediate predecessor, and reached #13.

The last and best single, however, failed to make it into the top 20. The intense ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?’ is a superb Buddy and Julie Miller song with a stinging lyric. Production on this track (one of three from the hands of Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell) is edgy but organic, with Lee Ann’s high lonesome wail just right for the starkness of the lyric addressed to the faithless spouse, with the Millers on harmony vocals.

Liddell’s other tracks are another Julie Miller song, the ponderous ‘I Know Why The River Runs’, which I could live without, and the infinitely better ‘Lonely Too’, written by Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison. This is my favorite on the record, a beautiful downbeat song, given a quietly impassioned delivery. The melody is quite lovely, with some strong fiddle from Aubrey Haynie and Larry Franklin and harmony vocals from Jon Randall making this a great sounding track. Lee Ann gently rebukes the careless lover who cannot understand why she is coping so badly:

You tell me you wondered if I was okay
Well, that’s a damn fool thing to say…

And you seem so surprised that I’m feeling this way
How am I so lonely today?
If you’d ever loved me the way I loved you
You would be lonely too

There are several other gems here.

The gorgeous ‘The Healing Kind’ opens the album with a subtle portrayal of disconsolate heartbreak which just won’t go away. This is a great song written by bluegrass singer/songwriter Ronnie Bowman and Greg Luck. Lee Ann’s exquisite vocal is backed by tasteful acoustic instrumentation and Ricky Skaggs’ harmonies, as she reveals a broken heart that hurts more every day, concluding bleakly as she meets yet another cold December alone,

Guess I’m just not the healing kind

Equally fine is the delicate Tammy Wynette styled ‘Stronger than I Am’ written by former singer Bobbie Cryner. A beautiful melody and tasteful strings sweeten a heartbreakingly incisive lyric about an abandoned wife who contrasts her failure to cope with live without her man, to her little girl’s innocence,

She finally learned to say goodbye
She’s sleeping through the night
She don’t wake up crying
And she’s walking on her own
She don’t need no one holding to her hand
And I hate to admit she’s stronger than I am

She’s just like her old man
Stronger than I am

Perhaps the most traditional country number included, the vivacious ‘I Feel Like I’m Forgetting Something’ is a co-write by Lee Ann with Wynn Varble and Jason Sellers. The copyright date is 1997, so one suspects it was left over from one of her previous albums. A chirpy mid-tempo number with a lot of personality about getting over an ex, it isn’t the best song here, but it was well worth reviving. Less successful is ‘After I Fall’, written by producer Mark Wright with Ronnie Rogers and Bill Kenner, which is the blander side of adult contemporary and falls completely flat.

‘Thinkin’ With My Heart Again’ is a pretty but melancholy sounding song written by Dean Dillon, Donny Kees and Sanger D Shafer with another delicate vocal conveying the complex emotions brought out when encountering a former love. An airy acoustic cover of ‘Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good’ (a chart topper for Don Williams back in 1982) ends the album on a high, with Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski singing harmony.

Thanks to the juggernaut of the title song, this remains Lee Ann’s best selling album, earning triple platinum status. The singing is outstanding throughout, and although the material is mixed, there is a lot of good stuff here, making it worth finding a cheap copy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘Next Big Thing’

Vince wrote or co-wrote all 17 of the songs on 2003’s Next Big Thing, and produced the album himself. It represents a marked return to form after the gloopy lovefest that was Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye, inspired by Vince’s second marriage to contemporary Christian singer Amy Grant.

He might have had a top 10 hit from his last album, but this album sees him apparently (and presciently) accepting that his time in the spotlight might be over. The beaty and surprisingly upbeat title track (written with Al Anderson and John Hobbs and featuring horns) and the more resigned ‘Young Man’s Town’ (with Emmylou Harris on harmony) both take a look at the fleeting nature of the music business and its fascination with youth and good looks. Both were released as singles, with the brassy party sound of ‘Next Big Thing’ providing Vince with his last top 20 hit and the more reflective ‘Young Man’s Town’ not making the top 40; perhaps the accuracy of the lyric hit a bit too close to home for country radio.

‘This Old Guitar And Me’ is an old musician’s love song to his first instrument and fond memories of his early career. The Leslie Satcher co-write ‘Old Time Fiddle’ is an enjoyable love letter to Cajun music, with appropriate fiddle solo and Leslie herself on harmony. Leslie also co-wrote the tenderly delivered ballad ‘Two Hearts’, where Lee Ann Womack provides the harmony vocal.

‘Someday’, the album’s second single (peaking at #31) is a delicately pretty AC-influenced ballad written with former pop star Richard Marx, wistfully dreaming of the possibility of future love. ‘These Broken Hearts’, written by Vince with his keyboard player Pete Wasner, is a sad ballad about breaking up with someone, with blue-eyed soul man Michael McDonald on harmony. Both songs are set against a string arrangement courtesy of John Hobbs and the Nashville String machine, and are pleasant listening without being truly memorable.

There are a few other less inspired moments, like the throwaway ‘The Sun’s Gonna Shine On You’. The mid-tempo ‘Don’t Let Her Get Away’, written with Anderson, is OK filler which sounds like some of Vince’s RCA recordings with banked but thin harmonies.

A number of the songs brood about failed relationships past. In the contemporary ballad ‘She Never Makes Me Cry’, Vince prefers an unexciting life with his new wife to the ups and downs of a passionate past love. ‘We Had It All’ is a mid-tempo plea to rekindle an old flame with a subtle Tex-Mex feel to the instrumentation. The bouncy and solidly traditional country ‘Without You’ delivers a more cheerful reaction to being single again, with Dawn Sears on harmony.

Dawn also sings a piercing harmony on the best song on the album. ‘Real Mean Bottle’ is a standout tribute to Merle Haggard, with a high lonesome feel and Bakersfield guitars:

It must have been a real mean bottle that made you write the songs that way
A real mean bottle
Poured straight from the Devil
It’s a miracle you’re standing here today

‘From Where I Stand’, written with Anderson and Hobbs, is a classic declaration of fidelity in the face of temptation, set to a beautiful tune with a bluesy harmony from Bekka Bramlett. This is another highlight, which could have been a big hit if released a few years earlier in Vince’s peak commercial period.

‘Whippoorwill River’, written with Dean Dillon, gently recalls childhood memories of life with his father. Vince’s daughter Jenny keeps things in the family by singing the harmony. A fictional look at family comes from the fiddle-led ‘You Ain’t Foolin’ Nobody’, written with Reed Nielsen, is addressed to the protagonist’s motherless daughter who is running wild in a small town.

The album closes with the mellow and reflective farewell to a dying friend, ‘In These Last Few Days’, with wife Amy Grant on harmony. It was the fourth and last single to be released, but did not perform very well.

Sales were disappointing, with the record his first not to reach at least gold status since he signed to MCA, but that is no reflection on the quality of the music. The album could perhaps have done with a bit of weeding, as there are a few forgettable songs, but overall this was a strong release with a lot of worthwhile material. It’s easy to find, and well worth adding to your collection if you have previously overlooked it.

Grade: A-

Album Review – George Strait – ‘Here For A Good Time’

On the title track to his new album, George Strait sings “I’m not here for a long time/but I’m here for a good time,” suggesting an attitude shift towards lightening up the mood and enjoying whatever remains of his time on earth. The contradiction is, he didn’t tell that to the rest of the album. He might not want to sit around and sing some old sad song, but that’s just what he’s doing, and doing it better than almost anyone half his age.

Here For A Good Time isn’t quite the feel-good party album the title suggests but rather an album born from reflection. More than 30 years into his career, Strait has assumed the role of the elder statesman looking back as much as looking forward. It’s easy to understand why, no less than seven tracks were co-written by Strait, his son Bubba, and Dean Dillon. Many were skeptical of Strait’s need to write his own material, a practice he put into full force on 2009’s Twang, complaining that he’d never be introspective.

With “I’ll Always Remember You” he proves all the naysayers wrong. The album’s closing number, it’s less a song than a recitation spoken directly to his fans on the subject of his looming retirement. While he says he still has much left to say and do, the day is growing closer when he’ll walk out of the spotlight. It’s kind of strange to hear an artist address his listeners on an album so clearly, but Strait pulls it off with ease.

And even though it closes the album, it’s “Remember” which sets the tone of reflection permeating the rest of the album. On “A Showman’s Life,” Jesse Winchester’s ballad featuring backing vocals from Faith Hill, he brings the pitfalls of life as a musician into full focus while he takes a cold hard look at life choices on “Drinkin’ Man.”  Strait may not have closely lived either track, but he infuses his vocal performances with just enough conviction to pull them off and the easygoing production of fiddles and steel guitars only adds to the mix here. It’s nice to hear her again even if on someone else’s album, but Hill’s contributions to “Life” are pretty slight. And “Drinkin’ Man” succeeds on two distinct fronts – Strait’s storytelling abilities and the killer hook, “It’s a hell of a lot to ask of a drinkin’ man.” Quitting the bottle is nearly impossible for some, and Strait pulls off the regret perfectly. It’s also my favorite song on the album because it’s true – growing up with an alcoholic grandfather, I know all about the control alcohol can have over a person.

The most daring moment on the album comes from Chuck Cannon and Allen Shamblin’s “Poison.”  The finished track is unlike anything Strait has ever recorded – bleak in nature, it employs an echo in the final chorus that only adds to the spookiness. The idea that you have to pick your poison because “you can learn to love anything” no matter if it’s good for you or not, is chill-inducing. It’s hard to imagine a better use of steel guitar on a song in 2011. It always amazes me that one instrument can bring forth joy and pain so convincingly that its mere placement can alter the mood of a song. Only in country music is that possible.  And only in country music can artists have such a breadth of work that newer songs recall classic hits. “House Across The Bay” recalls “Marina Del Ray” while “Shame On Me” is so timeless Strait, it could’ve worked on any of his past projects including his debut. Of the two, “Bay” is the better song, using the barrier of a body of water to display heartache. “Me” has its charm though, it’s just unremarkable compared to Strait’s past work since you feel like he’s done it before. But to hear him do it again is to hear a master at work. No one in mainstream country, except maybe Alan Jackson, can pull off the neo-traditionalist sound like Strait.

Also, no one sticks to his roots like him, either. Even on a somber collection like Time, there’s room to add a little Texas flare. While “Lone Star Blues” may appeal to some, it’s among my least favorite tracks on the album along with “Blue Marlin Blues.” It might be the upbeat honky-tonk nature of the tracks, but I’ve never really cared for Strait in this mode. I did enjoy the ever-present steel guitar on “Lone Star Blues,” but couldn’t get into the lyrics.

Like the honky-tonk romps,  the other two tracks are a mixed bag as well. While both “Love’s Gonna Make It” and “Three Nails on a Cross” are solid, only “Cross” the album’s gospel number is a keeper. While not one I’ve gotten into much yet, I really like the message of forgiveness conveyed in “Cross.” “Love” on the other hand isn’t very memorable apart from the chorus, which blends voices together so well you almost forget Strait is the one singing.

In the end Here For A Good Time is one of the strongest mainstream country albums of 2011. He proves once again why he’s assumed his legendary status, and this is one of the most interesting recordings you’ll hear all year. I honestly wasn’t going to buy the album, and having listened to it through an advanced copy, I’m very glad I did. Time outshines every album he’s made for quite some time.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Ashton Shepherd – ‘Where Country Grows’

Ashton Shepherd was the youngest of the artists we spotlighted last year as the “new New Traditionalists”. At last, three years after she emerged on the scene, she has released her second album, which marks a serious bid for mainstream success by a talented young singer-songwriter. It is produced, like her first record, by Buddy Cannon, who does a fine job balancing contemporary and traditional elements of Ashton’s sound and emphasizing her unique voice.

The insistent lead single ‘Look It Up’ (written by Angaleena Presley and Robert Ellis Orrall), which I reviewed at the end of last year, has Ashton coming on scornfully like a modern Loretta Lynn. This works tremendously well, and it is a shame it was not a monster hit for Ashton rather than peaking just inside the top 20 – although that made it her biggest hit to date.

It is one of only two tracks not written by Ashton. She is developing well as a songwriter, and I am pleased to see her working with other writers to hone her own gifts, building on the untutored natural talent she showed on her debut three years ago.  Former artist and recent Sugarland collaborator Bobby Pinson helps writing a couple of country-living themed numbers. The title track and current single is a bit predictable as Ashton pays tribute to her rural roots, but the up-tempo ‘More Cows Than People’ on the same theme is quite entertaining, with colorful details rooting the song in a specific reality. This one isn’t a generic southern small town. I also like the relaxed but catchy ‘Beer On A Boat’. Written by Marv Green, Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins, some of the lyrics might sound leering sung by a man, but Ashton makes it wholesome and charming. These four originally appeared on an EP earlier this year, which Razor X reviewed in anticipation of the album.

The best of the new songs is the sultry ‘That All Leads To One Thing’, one of Ashton’s solo compositions. It has a southern gothic Bobbie Gentry feel. A tormented married woman addresses the husband who is obviously cheating. With a vibe too dark for today’s country radio, it is one of the highlights on the record.  The upbeat ‘Tryin’ To Go To Church’ (written with Shane MacAnally and Brandy Clark) is lively and entertaining tune about struggling to live right in the face of various temptations (like the “husband-stealing heifer” she has to “set right”), and is reminiscent of ’70s Linda Ronstadt.

‘I’m Just A Woman’ is a ballad about being a woman, and specifically a wife and mother; the lyrics are not particularly deep or insightful, but the extraordinarily intense vocal makes it sound better than it is. The ballad ‘While It Ain’t Raining’ is equally intense to the point of verging on the over-dramatic, and although the song itself is well written (by Ashton with Troy Jones) a slightly more understated approach might have been more effective. Both tracks have backing vocals from Melonie Cannon (Buddy’s daughter and an exceptional talent in her own right).

‘I’m Good’ is a fine song which Ashton wrote with Dale Dodson and Dean Dillon. Like ‘Look It Up’, it is presented from the point of view of a woman refusing to forgive the man who has hurt her, but with a mellower feel musically as she concentrates on affirming her own strength and moving on. Her enunciation is oddly over emphasized – a feature of her vocals some criticized on her first album, which seems to have been intensified on this track in particular. ‘Rory’s Radio’ fondly recalls teenage memories of listening to the radio while driving with her older brothers, and has some slightly awkward phrasing.

I thought Ashton’s debut was enormously promising, the voice of a fresh new talent while still unmistakably country. This is more commercial, and will hopefully gain her some radio play, but although this is an encouraging step forwards, I feel she is still a work in progress, with her best yet to come.

Grade: B+

Buy it at amazon.

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘ Mud On the Tires’

Brad’s third album, released in 2003, saw him cementing his status as a star whose music combined comedy and serious songs, and one who genuinely appreciated country music tradition.

Lead single ‘Celebrity’ is a hilarious and sharp sideswipe at reality TV shows and those chasing fame for the sake of it (and the perks), with Brad playing the talentless wannabe with an irony entirely missed when one of the hapless contestants on the generally woeful final season of Nashville Star covered it on the show:

You can act just like a fool
And people think you’re cool
Just ‘cause you’re on TV

Brad also picked a Chris DuBois/Chris Wallin song which approaches a similar theme from a slightly different angle with the quirky ‘Famous People’, where he plays the part of an ingenuous countryman who brings a visiting movie star down to size a little.

The straight-faced ‘The Cigar Song’ is based on an old joke about a man who successfully claims on the insurance for “losing” some fine Cuban cigars in “a series of small fires”. The insurance company gets the last laugh, though, with a prosecution for various counts of arson. The broadest comedy is reserved for the return of Bill Anderson and George Jones (who featured on ‘Too Country’ on Part II), joined this time by Little Jimmy Dickens on the silly but funny deliberately muddled narration ‘Spaghetti Western Swing’, which also serves as a showcase for guest Redd Volkaert’s electric guitar. I enjoy this track but probably wouldn’t want to listen to it too often.

Second single ‘Little Moments’ was the first in what has become a tradition of Brad Paisley odes to domesticity, reportedly directly inspired by his new wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, who also starred in the video. Written by Brad with Chris DuBois, it has some charm with its loping phrasing and heartfelt delivery, and the theme had not yet outworn its welcome. Also in the happy family life vein is ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Like’, written by Wynn Varble and Don Sampson). The latter has an engagingly bouncy production and good humored feel, but is marred by an irritating small-child chorus. The pedestrian ‘That’s Life’ appears to be meant to be amusing, but falls flat (with comedians Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi unimpressive on unrecognisable backing “yeah yeah yeahs” and occasional yelled interjections). Only Frank Rogers’ inventive production saves these songs.

The exquisitely sad duet with Alison Krauss, ‘Whiskey Lullaby’, one of the few outside songs included here, was the third single. It was a wise decision to record this Bill Anderson/Jon Randall song, which has become a modern classic and may be the song for which Brad is best remembered a generation hence. The single itself has sold a million copies, and won various awards. It tells the story of a man whose failed marriage leads him into a life destroyed by alcohol and eventual death; then the woman who left him is overwhelmed by guilt and grief and also uses whiskey as her mode of self-destruction. The acoustic instrumentation is bolstered by Krauss on viola, Jerry Douglas’s dobro, and Union Station’s Dan Tyminski on backing vocals.

The first three songs were all big hits, but none reached the top of the Billboard singles chart, all peaking at # 2 or 3. The only chart-topper from the album was to be the title track (another Chris DuBois cowrite), to my ears the least interesting of the four, but a very popular single which was certified gold.

Much better is the restrained tenderness of the love song ‘Somebody Knows You Now’, which strains Brad’s voice to the limit, only adding to the authenticity of the emotion. I also like the traditional-meets contemporary feel of of ‘Hold Me In Your Arms (And Let Me Fall)’, addressed to a girl who is reluctant to date the protagonist. Vince Gill lends harmony support.

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Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Bullets In The Gun’

Toby Keith is one of the most prolific major label artists these days, consistently releasing an album a year, and writing most if not all of the material himself. He also produces his work, and now co-owns the label, so if anything is not quite up to par there is absolutely no one to blame but Toby himself. Bullets In The Gun is, on the whole, his strongest release for some time, but with no really outstanding moments and one major weak spot. Toby deserves credit for his production work, as the sound of the album is generally restrained with some variation in textures which keeps the interest even where the songs are not that interesting.

The title track, Toby’s latest single, is a gripping if somewhat derivative story song (written with Rivers Rutherford) with a drawled delivery about a drifter who hooks up with a bar dancer who leads him into a career of crime and bloody end. It is one of my favorite tracks here. Former single ‘Trailerhood’ is a nicely detailed and good-humored ode to a working class backwoods neighbourhood which paints a convincing picture, and has an engagingly bouncy tune and production, although it did less well on radio than usual, just scraping into the top 20.

‘Think About You All Of The Time’ is catchy but rather fluffily written about being hung up over an ex. I could see this as a future single. Toby teamed up with old friend Scotty Emerick and the great Dean Dillon to write the rather good ‘Is That All You Got’, a stoic demand of the woman who has left him, with just a hint of a wistful subtext.

The similarly themed ‘Ain’t Breakin’ Nothing’ paints an interesting picture of a man who readily confesses to being his “own worst enemy”. He combines defiance in the face of the inevitable breakup with proffering a kind of consolation to the woman leaving him:

You ain’t breakin’ nothin’ that ain’t already broke

This is one of no less than six songs here which Toby co-wrote with Bobby Pinson, who had a short-lived attempt at a solo career in the middle of the last decade. I loved Bobby’s debut album, and it would be good to see his work with Toby leading to another shot for him as an artist with Show Dog Universal, although his songs here are not his best work. The best of these collaborations (and one of the highlights of the album) is ‘In A Couple Of Days’, a plaintive and somewhat wry response to the woman who has just left him reeling from the shock of her departure and uncertain as to his feelings and now wants to know how he feels. I really like this one.

On the same theme is ‘Somewhere Else’, an pleasant if unexceptional mid-paced number about killing time in bars after an ex has walked out. ‘Drive It On Home’ is a fast paced and cheery trucking song with almost no tune. ‘Kissin’ In The Rain’ is an atmospheric slice of nostalgia about thwarted teenage romance between a rebellious daughter and a working class boy, but lacks much melody.

Pinson also co-wrote the worst song here, the banjo-led ‘Get Out Of My Car’, a crude demand for (immediate) sex from a date which is astonishingly crass even from Toby Keith. The only redeeming feature of this (apart from the playful banjo high in the mix) is that he gets turned down, which leads me to believe that the writers did not actually intend this to be quite as offensive as it is to a female listener (at least to me), and were merely monumentally clueless. Indeed, I’m pretty sure it was intended to be funny. It isn’t.

The unpleasant aftertaste is cleansed by the deluxe version of the album’s selection of four live covers as bonus tracks, although none of them is really essential listening. A shouted bluesy version of Johnny Paycheck’s ’29 Months and 29 Days’ lacks the intensity and conviction of the original. Waylon’s ‘Waynore’s Blues’ (given the wrong title on the cover) and Roger Miller’s ‘Chug A Lug’ work better for Toby, but the highlight is his version of the gorgeous ‘Sundown’, a top 20 country hit for Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot in the 70s, which would be hard to sing badly.

Grade: B-

Our friends at Country Universe are giving away an autographed copy this week.

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Better Than I Used To Be’

It really is tempting fate for any artist, particularly one who is past his or her commercial peak, to entitle an album Better Than I Used To Be, because (almost always) it begs a negative answer. Rich-voiced 90s star Sammy Kershaw has been away from the charts for a while, most recently concentrating on a venture into Louisiana state politics. His new album is on an independent (possibly self released) label, Big Hit Records. However, while I don’t think Sammy’s music is “better than it used to be”, the new album stands up pretty well against his back catalog. There are no obvious hit singles here, but Sammy is still in fine voice, and Buddy Cannon’s supportive production is excellent, and undoubtedly country.

The album is bookended by songs Sammy himself had a share in writing. The unremarkable but energetic ‘That Train’, which he wrote alone, opens the album. In an interview with the 9513 earlier this year, Sammy admitted:

“I’m not much of a songwriter but every once in a while I get lucky and write one in 10 or 15 minutes. If it goes any longer than that, I get rid of them. I never work on them again”

Frankly, this song does indeed sound as though it only took a few minutes to write, although it clearly inspired the cover art. Much better is the co-write with John Scott Sherrill and Scotty Emerick which closes the set. ‘Takin’ The Long Way Home’ places the protagonist in a bar, because he has too little to go home for, with a woman who’s obviously on her way out. The sweet sadness of the fiddle line underscores the delicately understated emotion of a man who has no remedy for his sense of abandonment, as he concludes at the end of the evening,

And it’ll be time for me to go
Where I’m going I don’t know
I just know I’m takin’ the long way home

However rash it may be as the title track, ‘Better Than I Used To Be’, written by Brian Simpson and Ashley Gorley, is a highlight of the record. It is a tender, even inspiring, promise from a man who has made mistakes in the past and is in the process of turning his life around:

I can’t count the people I’ve let down
Or the hearts I’ve broke
You aint gotta dig too deep
If you want to find some dirt on me
I’m learning who you’ve been
Ain’t who you’ve gotta be…

Standin’ in the rain so long
Has left me with a little rust
But put some faith in me
Someday you’ll see
There’s a diamond under all this dust

But he acknowledges this is a work in progress in this lovely, mature song. A video was made to support this song as a single earlier this year, and it is a shame it failed to make many waves.

Equally good is the subdued sadness of ‘Like I Wasn’t Even There’, written by Wes Hightower, Monty Criswell and Tim Mensy. The protagonist runs into his ex for the first time since the breakup, and is ignored as though their relationship never existed.

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RIP Hank Cochran

The legendary songwriter Hank Cochran died yesterday. His own singing career is largely forgotten, despite a handful of minor hit singles in the 60s, but country music would have been immeasurably the poorer if not for the many great classics he wrote over the years. Refresh your memory with these former Classic Rewinds.

Other personal favorites of mine are ‘I know An Ending When It Comes’, originally recorded by Merle Haggard but revived by Gene Watson just last year, Buck Owens’ classic ‘A-11′, and Johnny Bush’s ‘Undo The Right’. He also wrote a number of the great Vern Gosdin’s finest songs, including ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’, ‘Is It Raining At Your House’ and ‘There Ain’t Nothing Wrong (Just Ain’t Nothing Right)’.

In the 80s Hank wrote these two hit songs with Dean Dillon – on the same day:

Head to head: rival versions of the same song

LeAnn Rimes has elected to premier her upcoming covers album Lady And Gentlemen by releasing a ramped-up version of John Anderson’s 1983 smash hit ‘Swingin’’ as the lead single. Self-evidently, covering another artist’s signature song means you have to bear comparison with the original. Unfortunately for LeAnn, she also has to compete with a much better cover getting attention at the moment in the form of Chris Young’s fresh acoustic take on the same song on his excellent new EP Voices (reviewed here recently by Razor X). Admittedly Chris’s version is not being promoted as a single, but it’s certainly the version I would prefer to hear on the radio.

LeAnn has of course been in a similar position before. As a teenager she was at the center of a public rivalry, when her recording of ‘How Do I Live’, intended for the soundtrack of the 1997 action movie Con Air, was rejected by the producers in favor of a version by Trisha Yearwood. As well as its appearance in the film, Trisha’s version was a big country hit single, reaching #2 on Billboard, and won a Grammy. LeAnn arguably got the last laugh that time, as her rival cut was a massive international pop hit and sold three million copies.

In fact, rival versions of the same song competing for sales and airplay, are something of a tradition. In the singles-dominated 1950s and 60s it was commonplace for artists to cover current hits, either as direct competition or as easy choices of popular songs to fill out an album. In an era when country fans had less disposable income, it made sense for an artist to record the most popular songs out there, so that if someone liked a particular song they might choose to buy the version by their favorite singer. Successful artists who sold well were almost unbelievably prolific, typically releasing several 12-track albums a year – George Jones, for instance, recorded over 150 songs when he was signed to United Artists, over the period 1962-1964. There was thus great demand for good material, even by singer-songwriters who simply couldn’t write enough on their own.

Merrle Haggard, for instance, wrote much of his material, but also included covers of contemporary hits. His 1968 album Mama Tried supplemented his own classic title song with covers of recent hits ‘The Green, Green Grass Of Home’, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, Dolly Parton’s ‘In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)’ , and the now-forgotten ‘Little Old Wine Drinker Me’. In turn, ‘Mama Tried’ and the previous year’s hit ‘Sing Me Back Home’ were covered by the Everly Brothers on their own 1968 release Roots.

It was also often common for singers in other genres to cover country hits, and vice versa. An early example is Hank Williams’ Cajun-styled ‘Jambalaya (On the Bayou)’. Hank’s original was a 14-week #1 in 1952; a cover by singer Jo Stafford saw top 10 success on the pop charts the same year. Stafford had quite an eye for country hits which could be brought to a new audience – she also covered Hank Snow’s 1952 country hit ‘A Fool Such As I’ in 1953, and had duetted with Frankie Laine on Hank Williams’ ‘Hey Good Lookin’. Laine also covered ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, but the biggest pop version was by Joni James, who recorded it the day Hank died. Patti Page’s 1950 country-pop crossover smash ‘Tennessee Waltz’ was another to see off several rival versions.

A decade later, nothing had changed. John Hartford’s ‘Gentle On My Mind’ won him a folk Grammy in 1968; Glen Campbell’s cover of the same song won the country Grammy the same year. Patti Page charted a pop version that year, and Aretha Franklin gave it an R&B twist the following year, while Rat Packer Dean Martin had an easy listening international hit, and Elvis Presley also covered the tune on an album. The Kris Kristofferson classic ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ was a top 20 country hit for Roger Miller in 1969, who recorded it before the Statler Brothers (who had been offered the song) could get into the studio. The same year a rival version by Canadian Gordon Lightfoot was a pop hit, and it was also an album track for Kenny Rogers. A year later it was a rock smash for Janis Joplin. ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’ was a top 10 country hit for Johnny Darrell, and covered the same year by Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller and the Statler Brothers, before Kenny Rogers’ #1 a few years later displaced all previous versions.

Even as late as the 1990s, genre reinventions were bringing songs to new audiences. 90s country star Mark Wills saw his 1998 country hit ‘I Do (Cherish You)’ (written by Keith Stegall and Dan Hill) covered the following year by pop group 98 Degrees. He then covered R&B artist Brian McKnight’s 1999 pop hit ‘Back At One’, getting a country hit for himself in 2000. Weirdly, both versions of the latter got to #2 on their respective charts.

In more recent years, competing cuts tended to mean that one artist got the hit, and the other was forced to release another song instead. In some cases that changed the course of country music history.

1983 saw rival versions of the inspirational ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’. The earliest cut was actually by English MOR singer Roger Whittaker in 1982, but in 1983 two pop-country stars went head to head. Actor-singer Gary Morris enjoyed a top 10 hit but it might easily have been Lee Greenwood, who included the song on his album Somebody’s Gonna Love You released the same year. In 1985 the fast-rising Reba McEntire’s recording of the lively ‘She’s Single Again’ was not released as a single – because Janie Fricke got there first, and enjoyed a #2 hit.

Keith Whitley saw his big breakthrough delayed when he was unable to release the two best tracks on his 1986 album LA To Miami as singles, due to rival versions getting to radio first. He might have had a big hit with Dean Dillon’s ‘Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her’, but George Strait‘s cut went to #1 instead, and is one of Strait’s most fondly remembered singles. ‘On The Other Hand’ was to become the signature hit for Randy Travis in 1986 – but it might so easily have served that function for Keith instead. Incidentally, a third recording of the song was also made by veteran Charley Pride on After All This Time, his 1987 album for independent label 16th Avenue. All three versions are good enough to have been hits.

George Strait also potentially stymied the chances of his favorite songwriter when his choice of Dean Dillon’s ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ as a single in 1993 – a song Dillon had earmarked for his own next shot at the charts. Even our current Spotlight Artist Mark Chesnutt has drawn the short straw a couple of times. As Razor X mentioned in yesterday’s review of Too Cold At Home, that album featured a version of ‘Friends In Low Places’ – only to be forestalled when Garth Brooks had a smash hit with his version of the song. More recently, Joe Nichols recorded ‘Don’t Ruin It For The Rest Of Us’ on his Revelation album in 2004, the same year Mark recorded the song on his first independent release Savin’ the Honky Tonk, although in this case neither artist selected the song as a single.

I’ve only scratched the surface here – what rival versions can you think of? Did the best cut always win the chart battle?

Moving backstage

Former Wrecker Jessica Harp surprised many by her recent announcement that she was leaving her record label and abandoning hopes of a solo career in favour of becoming a full time songwriter. While retaining rather more dignity than Jason Michael Carroll’s unforgettable but rather sad “Arista and I are going our seperate [sic] ways! They called and said they would be moving forward without me!” this may be a case of jumping before she was pushed, as Jessica’s solo singles had failed to set the charts alight, although her now ex-label has chosen to release her album digitally as a parting gift for her fans.

Time will tell whether she will be successful in her new course. She would hardly be the first Nashville songwriter to start out wanting to be an artist in her own right, or indeed the first to enjoy a short chart career.

Dean Dillon’s distinctive turn of phrase has made him one of the most sought-after writers in the past 20 years. With a voice as quirky and distinctive as his writing, he started out as a singer. A string of singles on RCA were minor hits in the late 70s and early 80s, including the first versions of his own songs ‘Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her’ and ‘Famous Last Words Of A Fool’. The former was a top 30 hit, the latter failed to make the top 50, but neither had the chart impact they deserved – or that they had when George Strait covered them. The label also teamed Dean up with honky tonker Gary Stewart as a duo, releasing one full length album and a six track EP. Those early RCA recordings (both solo and duet) are virtually all now available on one CD. A successful run as a songwriter followed, but he had not given up his dreams of solo stardom, and in 1988 he signed to Capitol. Two albums for that label, and two more for Atlantic, failed to quite take off. The critical moment arrived when he planned to release ‘Easy Come Easy Go’ as a single – and found Strait wanted to record the song. He relinquished the song, and settled down to life as a writer for others.

I’ve never really understood why Larry Boone’s solo career never took off. He was signed to Mercury in the late 80s, and later Columbia; he was good looking, had a great voice, and was an excellent songwriter. But only a few of his singles charted, the most successful being his #10 ‘Don’t Give Candy To A Stranger’ which was our Classic Rewind a week ago. Luckily, he had that songwriting talent to fall back on.

Skip Ewing was another recording artist to enjoy a handful of hit singles in the late 80s, then turn to writing them for others when his own chart career wound down. He had much more success in the latter capacity, writing multiple #1s. He made a return to the airwaves in his own right as Reba’s duet partner on the radio version of ‘Every Other Weekend’.

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Some hidden treasures of the decade

At the end of last year, I shared a list of my favorite 50 singles of the decade. Some of them were big hits, others more obscure, but at least in theory they got some attention at the time. Now that the decade is well and truly over, I thought I would mention some hidden treasures – album tracks that you probably only heard if you’re a fan of the artist, and purchased the full album. Some of them are from albums and artists that were more successful than others. I’ve omitted anything that made it to radio (even if it wasn’t a hit) as I considered those for my last list, and I have also left out anything from an album which made our collective Albums of The Decade list, although I have included tracks from other albums by artists who appeared on both of those lists. I have restricted my list to one track per artist named.

40. ‘Cold All The Time’ – Irene Kelley (from Thunderbird, 2004)
Songwriter Irene Kelley has released a couple of very good independent albums, showcasing her own very beautiful voice as well as her songs. This is a gently resolute song about a woman stuck in a bad relationship, summoning up the courage to make a move.

39. ‘All I Want’ – Darius Rucker (from Learn To Live, 2008)
There is still a chance that this might make it to the airwaves, as Darius’s platinum country debut is his current release. As a whole, the material was a little disappointing, but this great song is definitely worth hearing, and not only because it’s the mos country song on the album. It’s a jaundiced kiss-off to an ex, offering her everything as “all I want you to leave me is alone”.

38. ‘I Met Jesus In A Bar’ – Jim Lauderdale (from Country Super Hits Volume 1, 2006)
Songwriter Jim Lauderdale has released a number of albums of his own, in more than one country sub-genre, and in 2006 he issued two CDs on one day: one country, the other bluegrass. This great co-write with Leslie Satcher, a melancholy-tinged song about God and booze, also recorded by Aaron Watson, comes from the country one.

37. ‘A Train Not Running’ – Chris Knight (from The Jealous Kind, 2003)
Singer-songwriter Chris Knight co-wrote this downbeat first-person tale of love and a mining town’s economic failure with Stacy Dean Campbell, who also recorded a version of the song.

36. ‘Same Old Song’ – Blake Shelton (from Blake Shelton, 2001)
These days, Blake seems to attract more attention for his girlfriend Miranda Lambert and his Tweeting than for his own music. This song, written by Blake’s producer Bobby Braddock back in 1989, is an appeal for country songs to cover new ground and real stories.

35. ‘If I Hadn’t Reached For The Stars’ – Bradley Walker (from Highway Of Dreams, 2006)
It’s probably a sign of the times that Bradley Walker, who I would classify as a classic traditional country singer in the Haggard/Travis style, had to release his excellent debut album on a bluegrass label. This love song (written by Carl Jackson and previously recorded by Jon Randall) is all about finding happiness through not achieving stardom.

34. ‘Between The River And Me’ – Tim McGraw (from Let It Go, 2007)
Tim McGraw is not one of my favorite singers, but he does often have a knack for picking interesting material. It was a travesty that the best track on his 2007 album was never released as a single, especially when far less deserving material took its place. It’s a brooding story song narrated by the teenage son of a woman whose knack seems to be picking the wrong kind of man, in this case one who beats her. The son turns to murder, down by the river.

33. ‘Three Sheets In The Wind’ – Randy Archer (from Shots In The Dark, 2005)
In the early 9s, Randy Archer was one half of the duo Archer Park,who tried and failed to challenge Brooks & Dunn. His partner in that enterprise is now part of The Parks. Meanwhile, Randy released a very good independent album which has been overlooked. My favorite track is this sad tale of a wife tearing up a husband’s penitent note of apology and leaving regardless.

32. ‘It Looked Good On Paper’ – Randy Kohrs featuring Dolly Paton (from I’m Torn, 2007)
A forlorn lost-love ballad from dobro player Kohrs featuring exquisite high harmonies from Dolly. the ret o the record is very good, too – and you can listen to it all on last.fm.

31. ‘Mental Revenge’ – Pam Tillis (from It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, 2002)
After her mainstream stardom wound down, 90s star Pam Tillis took the opportunity to record a real labor of love: a tribute album to her father Mel. This bitter diatribe to an ex is my favorite track.

30. ‘You Don’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Neighbour’ – Rhonda Vincent (from The Storm Still Rages, 2001)
A traditional country-bluegrass-gospel quartet take on a classic rebuke to religious hypocrites, written by Carl Story. The track isn’t the best showcase of Rhonda’s lovely voice, but it’s a great recording of a fine song with a pointed message.

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The 25 best albums of the decade

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been compiling a list of our favorite albums of the past decade. We each prepared a list of our 10 favorites, and then we attempted to trim the combined list down to 25 and rank them. There was surprisingly little overlap, and I think it’s safe to say that the final list is quite different from what any of us would have come up with individually. So, without further ado, here are the 25 best albums of the decade, as we see it:

25. Elizabeth Cook — Hey Y’all (Warner Bros, 2002)

Elizabeth Cook was too country for country even in 2002 with her engaging major-label debut. My favourite track is ‘You Move Too Fast’, followed by the charming ‘Everyday Sunshine’, the comparison of her career to that of ‘Dolly’, the sweet ‘Mama, You Wanted To Be A Singer Too’, the singalong about the ‘Stupid Things’ love will make you do, and the irrepressibly optimistic ‘God’s Got A Plan’. — Occasional Hope

24. Wynonna — Her Story: Scenes From a Lifetime (Mercury/Curb, 2005)

Wynonna took an autobiographical approach to her 2005 tour, and the show was filmed and recorded for a live DVD/CD combo set. Beginning with her musical journey as one half of The Judds, Wynonna affectionately recalls her days on the road with her Mom, before moving on to the solo side of her music career, revisiting classic Judds hits like ‘Girls Night Out’ and ‘Love Can Build a Bridge’. The banter in between the songs is reason enough to own the set, but Wynonna’s live take on her own songs like ‘That Was Yesterday’, ‘I Want To Know What love Is’, and ‘Is It Over Yet’ are flawless. — J.R.

23. Bobby Pinson — Man Like Me (RCA, 2005)

This was the richest debut album of the decade, although few record buyers agreed, and singer-songwriter Bobby soon lost his deal with RCA. His gravelly voice had genuine character and emotional depth; perhaps it was too much of an acquired taste for radio beyond one minor hit single. Great overlooked tracks include the reflective title track, showing how hard experiences made the man, the testimony of a sinner saved by a woman’s love in ‘One More Believer’, ‘Ford Fairlane’, perhaps my favorite song of all time about a car, and the wry ‘Started A Band’ about struggling to make it as a musician. — Occasional Hope

22. Brad Paisley — Time Well Wasted (Arista, 2005)

After three promising but somewhat uneven albums, things finally came together with Paisley’s fourth release. This was the first album he released that I felt compelled to buy. It opens with the obligatory novelty tune (“Alcohol”) but it also contains one of the strongest entries in his catalog to date, “When I Get Where I’m Going” which features beautiful harmony vocals by Dolly Parton. — Razor X

21. Sugarland — Love On The Inside (Mercury, 2007)

Masterpiece. That’s the best word I can find to decribe this album. But mere words cannot begin to explain how much I love this album, or how many times I’ve played it in the past 18 months. Jennifer Nettles said it was a set of songs that would play well from ‘Saturday night to Sunday morning’, but I have to disagree. I can’t think of any day of the week, or any time of day this near-perfect set doesn’t play well. With sharp songwriting set among a myriad of subjects, while Nettles wraps her distinctive pipes around the always-catchy lyrics, Love On The Inside is still the best studio album I’ve heard in my years listening to country music, with songs like ‘Genevieve’, ‘Very Last Country Song’, and ‘Fall Into Me’ all getting hundreds of spins in my library. I’ve liked all the singles sent to radio too. — J.R.

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Year In Review: J.R. Journey’s Top 10 Albums of 2009

As with my favorite singles of the year list, finding ten albums from 2009 that I really loved wasn’t as big a task as I first expected it to be, but narrowing it down and placing them was the real chore.  I’ve certainly been more influenced by the various blogs and sites I read this year than I ever have before – the influence of sites like The 9513, Country Universe, The Gobbler’s Knob, etc. are definitely showing here.  Not to mention, I’ve picked up lots of great music from the suggestions of my fellow writers here at My Kind of Country.  In case you missed any of them, they’re all worth adding to your collection, and here my ten favorite albums from the past twelve months.

10. EP – Caitlin & Will (Sony)

The debut release from the winners of CMT’s Can You Duet turned out to be a six-song digital EP instead of a full album in CD form.  A varied collection of songs that, in my opinion, is very focused, especially for two singers who were thrown together on a reality show.  Caitlin’s crystal clear vocals provide the perfect balance to Will Snyder’s husky delivery.  There were several great songs on here, and no throwaways.  Check out ‘Even Now’, ‘Leaves of September’, and ‘Dark Horse’.

9. Live On The Inside – Sugarland (Mercury)

Sugarland’s recent live set follows the CD/DVD combo form.  I was a little disappointed that the full show with all their hits wasn’t also the audio CD.  The DVD serves the live album’s purpose – to capture their hits in concert, and the result is a full-blown Sugarland show, complete with all their hits, hamster balls and all.  Rather than being an audio form of that show, the CD features several tracks not found on the DVD, mostly all covers of pop and rock songs from the past 20-something years.  Some I could do without, but the real gems like ‘Circle’ and ‘Better Man’, where Nettles puts her own distinctive vocal stamp on these rock hits, are a real treat.  Their country spin on Beyonce’s ‘Irreplaceable’ is more enjoyable than it probably should be and Kristian does a fine job when he takes a turn at lead on ‘The One I Love’.

8. Twang – George Strait (MCA)

The latest offering from King George finds him stepping outside his comfort zone with off-beat tracks like ‘Arkansas Dave’ and the all-Spanish ‘El Rey’.  Showing up as a co-writer on 3 of the album’s tracks is also a fairly new development for Strait, but judging from the quality of the material he wrote with Dean Dillon and his son, Bubba Strait, I’m hoping George picks up his pen more often, and also takes more chances musically, with his next album.  For now, I’m still enjoying spinning this one.

7. Beautiful Day – Charlie Robison (Dualtone)

When Charlie Robison and Dixie Chicks banjo-playing, multi-instrumentalist Emily Irwin Robison divorced in 2008, the Texas singer/songwriter poured his misery into this collection of songs.  Robison sings here of regrets, heartache, and moving on, all with a tinge of sadness and even a touch of reluctance.  Favorite tracks include ‘Down Again’ and ‘Reconsider’.

6. Sing: Chapter 1 -Wynonna (Curb)

Since leaving The Judds and going solo, Wynonna’s sound has changed a lot over the years.  We’ve heard her incorporating sounds from R&B, pop, rock, jazz, and everything in between.  A collection of classic songs from several genres, with one new song in the way of the title track written by Rodney Crowell, Sing is an interesting and at times inspired collection. Wynonna’s ferocious delivery is front and center the entire time, always reminding us that Wynonna Judd is the owner of one of the finest voices of our time.

5. My Turn – Tanya Tucker (Saguaro Road)

I rightly called 2009 ‘the year of the tribute’ earlier in the year, and looking over my top albums of the year list, I think I made a justifiable generalization since so many of my favorite artists released albums looking back and paying tribute to the classic songs that country music was built on.  Tanya’s covers album was just a step above Wynonna’s mostly for the arrangements behind the songs.  While Wynonna took the songs, changed them up, and made them something different, Tanya took a straightforward approach, and simply infused her patented vocals into these tried and true songs, injecting her personality into them at the same time.  I find myself playing this one more than I expected to, especially ‘Love’s Gonna Live Here’ and ‘You Don’t Know Me’.

4. Keep On Loving You – Reba (Valory)

I admit this is an album that took time to grow on me before I really loved it.  After the first couple listens to Reba’s first album for her new record label, I was a bit disappointed.   I expected more in the way of going back to the classic Reba sound.  But Reba has never been an artist to look back, but instead forges ahead with the trends of the day.  She reminded us why she’s one of the most successful and respected singers in country music’s history with this release, and tracks like ‘Over You’, ‘Maggie Creek Road’, and the chart-topping second single, ‘Consider Me Gone’, are throwbacks to the time when Reba music was golden, and her vocal performances throughout the album are engaging.  This is certainly an album with lasting power in my own library.

3. The List – Rosanne Cash (Manhattan)

The idea behind this album is fascinating in itself.  An eighteen year-old Rosanne, whose father was a bonafide superstar in country music, didn’t seem to know much about its history.  Being a good father, Johnny Cash set out to correct this, making his daughter a list of 100 essential country songs.  The entire list still hasn’t been made available for the public to see, but Rosanne did record twelve of them for her latest offering, simply titled The List.  Cash weaves through these country classics with ease and gives a contemporary interpretation to them, with the help from some of her superstar New Yorker friends like Elvis Costello, Rufus Wainwright, and Bruce Springsteen.  Choice tracks include ‘Sea of Heartbreak’ (with Springsteen), ‘Long Black Veil’, and ‘Girl From The North Country’.

2. Revolution – Miranda Lambert (Sony)

On her third studio album, Lambert has finally come into her own as an artist, and in my opinion, has reached a peak in her evolution as an artist.  Note that I said ‘a peak’ and not ‘the peak’.  While it doesn’t pack the power punch her last album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend did, and doesn’t seem to have as clear a vision, Lambert has never been stronger as a writer or a vocalist than on Revolution.  She wrote most of the album, but she also had the good sense to draw from the wealth of material coming out of Music City and other places, and a quick glance of the liner notes shows names like Ashley Monroe, John Prine, and Julie Miller, among Lambert’s own many writes and co-writes, a couple with boyfriend Blake Shelton.  Of particular note are ‘The House That Built Me’, ‘Heart Like Mine, and ‘That’s The Way The World Goes ‘Round’.

1. The Long Way Home – Terri Clark (Bare Tracks)

Taking the top spot on my list is Terri Clark’s first independent release after freeing herself from big-label politics.  Terri had taken a sabbatical to her native Canada to care for her mother and write songs when she headed to Nashville earlier this year and recorded this set in three takes.  The result is one of the most focused albums I’ve ever heard.  Whether it was intentional, or just a facet of her state of mind at the time, Clark has taken on a more mature aura to her music and herself, imparting the sort of wisdom that only comes from experience.  ‘A Million Ways To Run’ is a beautiful and telling narrative about running from your problems.  ‘Merry Go Round’ talks of slowing down, enjoying life, and taking stock, while ‘If You Want Fire’ warns and coaches you on the ups and downs of a red-hot love affair.  Clark has never sounded better, nor has her writing been as sharp than on this introverted collection of songs.

Year In Review: Megan Morrow’s Top 10 singles of 2009

Looking at my list it becomes very apparent that the best singles don’t always make it to country radio. There are songs on various albums that I like much more but that were never released. That said, here are some of the songs that I find myself humming and still enjoying at the end of 2009.

10. Welcome to the Future – Brad Paisley (June)
Musically, this one had to grow on me, even though it has some great licks between phrases. At the same time, the lyrics jumped out at me from the get-go. I’m probably going to be the only one with this one on my list for sure, but this is another one that spoke to me in the midst of the huge shifts in our country’s landscape. Watching the elections and the inauguration reminded me of watching the Berlin Wall come down – something I didn’t know I’d ever see in my lifetime. Welcome to the future.

9. A Little More Country Than That – Easton Corbin (July)
Our local station started playing this one right after its release last summer with the tag that it’s sung by Easton “I’m-Not-George-Strait” Corbin. If you weren’t paying attention though, you’d almost think it was George! And not only does Easton have a great laid-back easy country vocal, but it fits the song to a T with lyrics like:

Imagine a dirt road full of potholes
With a creek bank and some cane poles catchin’ channel cat
I’m a little more country than that
.

It’s a proposal that lets her know just who she’s getting “under this ol’ hat”. Just a great, simple, easy country song, that’s appropriately produced. Love it! Others must, too – it just rolled into the Top 20.

8. Big Green Tractor – Jason Aldean (May)
Yup. I’m going to admit I like this one. Not sure why, but it makes me smile. Not only does the tractor never break ground, but the song probably doesn’t either. Yet it’s a charming, catchy and sweet love song that paints a great picture that fits us Nebraska folks out here in corn country. It’s Jason’s second release from his 2009 album Wide Open and stayed at #1 for several weeks.

7. White Liar – Miranda Lambert (August)
Acoustic  and steel guitar on a cheating song with a burning lyric of a strong woman calling out the cheat himself and dropping her own bombshell. Doesn’t get much more country than that!

6. Cowgirls Don’t Cry – Brooks & Dunn f. Reba (Feb.)
The digital re-release of this one featuring Reba makes this a possibility for my 2009 list. With some great fiddle, a good story and Ronnie’s vocals, topped off by Reba’s heart-felt last verse, it just got to me. Granted the character in the song loses her dad, but having lost my mom in 2008 it struck a chord for me. That’s part of what I love about country music in general – its power to touch and heal.

5. Living For the Night – George Strait (May)
Love George’s interpretation of this one. He captures that absent, empty kind of feel that missing someone is all about. And then there’s the fact that he and his son wrote it together with Dean Dillon. The lyrics are straight forward yet speak volumes:

Everyday’s a lifetime without you
Hard to get through, since you’ve gone
So I do the only thing I know how to to get by
I’m living for the night.

4. People Are Crazy – Billy Currington (March)
Written by Bobby Braddock and Troy Jones, ‘People Are Crazy’ is Billy’s second single from his 2008 album, Little Bit Of Everything, and is nominated for a Grammy in two categories. It’s probably my favorite story song of the year due to its humorous way of making the point that we all share the most basic common denominators: God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy.

3. Consider Me Gone - Reba McEntire (July)
Though I loved ‘Strange’, her first single from her first album with Valory (April 09), Reba’s second single has become even more of a favorite. Reba calls it a “strong woman’s song” and that it is. Like Sugarland’s ‘Settlin’’, Reba’s character isn’t going to settle either. She lets her lover know in those powerful Reba vocals that

If I’m not the one thing you can’t stand to lose
If I’m not that arrow to the heart of you
If you don’t get drunk on my kiss
If you think you can do better than this
Then I guess we’re done
Let’s not drag this on
Consider me gone.

This one went number one on the Billboard chart this week, making Reba’s 24th trip to the top.

2. Solitary Thinkin’ – Lee Ann Womack (April)
The second single from her Grammy nominated album, Call Me Crazy, and more bluesy jazz than straight country, ‘Solitary Thinkin’ stood out on radio this year as an example of less is more. Lee Ann’s vocals are subtle and embody that smoothness that everything takes on when you’re doing some solitary drinkin’ and thinkin’.

1. High Cost of Living – Jamey Johnson (March)
This one actually got released, but was a bit too dark, rough and long for much radio play. Earthy and honest, pointed and powerful, it’s the best country song of the year in my book.

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